REVIEW: Begin Again

Begin Again

Begin Again 
Directed by: John Carney
Written by: John Carney
Starring: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, James Corden and Hailee Steinfeld

Begin Again is a cute, light-hearted musical with just enough bite to avoid being irredeemably fluffy. It’s a movie where I knew everyone would be all right at the end, because the main characters’ redemption arcs are so unchallenged that the story would work whether they score a hit record or not.   Dan (Mark Ruffalo) is a heavy drinking, has-been record executive with a crumbling marriage.   While down on his luck and drunk at an open mic night, he discovers Greta (Keira Knightley), a recently dumped singer/songwriter whose music becomes the driving force of their uplift (and ours).

Those character archetypes sound unbearably cliché, but writer/director John Carney’s disinterest in mining the narrative for drama proves to be an asset here. Ruffalo and Knightley have enough chemistry to make their recording sessions interesting, and it was surprising to see how exactly their relationship conflicts settled.

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REVIEW: Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips
Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Written by: Billy Ray (screenplay), Richard Phillips (book)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman and Faysal Ahmed

The final scenes in Captain Phillips are some of the most disturbing and haunting of the year.  They also somewhat erase the good guy/bad guy mentality and replace it with raw humanity. (Spoiler ahead) They involve Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) screaming his head off while covered in the blood of recently-killed Somali pirates who were holding him hostage.  It is a raw portrayal of trauma, and it resonates more than anything else in this taut if mostly unsubstantial movie.

Like Gravity, Paul Greengrass’ latest film operates on the built-in history audiences have with its Hollywood star.  Hanks doesn’t disappear into the title character as much as he uses his image to enhance the terror of the situation.  It’s the actor we are meant to see struggle with a pirate raid on his cargo ship while traveling off the African coast.  Those last scenes in particular are crucial reminders of that.

That isn’t to say that Greengrass rests on his laurels because he has one of the most famous stars in the world in his movie.  He films Captain Phillips as if it were a documentary, as if the source material (written by the actual captain and adapted by Billy Ray) were an absolute truth.  It is an exhilarating, immersive approach to the material, but also flawed.  Richard Phillips obviously has a very biased account of these actions, and though the movie attempts to offer slight sympathy to the pirates, Phillips’ crew largely comes off as a mindless herd that would be nothing without their captain.

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Once Phillips is taken hostage in the claustrophobic confines of a lifeboat, this ceases to be an issue.  The captain of the Somali pirates, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), becomes less an antagonist than he does a man trapped by a life’s worth of bad options.  In a crucial scene, Phillips ask him why he has to steal and loot, that there must be some other choice in life.  “Maybe in America,” he replies.

The scenes inside that lifeboat are truly riveting.  If the movie had stayed pinned inside that action and not over-indulged the Navy officers attempting to rescue Phillips, it would have been much stronger.  Thankfully the tactical efficiency of the military is offset by moments of moral ambiguity, much like Zero Dark Thirty.

I wish the movie had spent more time with Muse at the end, because although it makes its point by showing officers coldly tell him “your friends are all dead,” it spends much more time with Phillips, who is so traumatized that he can’t even form a coherent sentence.  This is another example of the movie’s flawed, if riveting, subjectivity.  Greengrass and Ray attempt to rise above it in those final scenes, but they partially fall prey to star power, which will likely be the biggest audience (and Oscar) draw to their movie.

Grade: C+

ARCHIVE REVIEW: Being John Malkovich

Being John Malkovich
Directed by: Spike Jonze
Written by: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, and John Malkovich

For fans of the work of Charlie Kaufman, a predisposition to a realm of absurdity is often acquired after watching one of his screenplays unfold.  Approach any of his works with the intention that you will be taken somewhere new, and that that place will be filled with wonder, terror, and more honesty than reality could ever contain.

In Being John Malkovich, Kaufman has crafted his magnum opus.  Inside the expansive confines of his world lie countless punchlines, absurdities and insights, most of which deal with the nature of identity.  This is a world filled only with people who go for what they want, because those who don’t don’t matter.  It’s extremes like these that guide the often childish characters through the narrative and ultimately to a conclusion that offers no simple answers.

It begins with a puppeteer named Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) realizing his dream is impossible in his own body.  He decides to apply this childish pastime onto something in the corporate world.  He gets hired as a file clerk (because of his fast fingers) on the 7 1/2 floor of a gigantic office building.  While working there, he falls immediately in love with Maxine (Catherine Keener), an attractive, manipulative, and greedy woman who leads him on, and then ultimately cuts him loose.  This is until he discovers the portal.

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DVD Must-watch: Spike Jonze’s Oscar snubbed Where the Wild Things Are

Image courtesy of Screen Rant

The biggest crime perpetuated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Peter Travers of Rolling Stone prefers “Farts and Biases” and I tend to agree) this year is ignoring Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. Today, you have the opportunity to partially correct that mistake by going out and renting or buying the film yourself and seeing what great work he has done.

Jonze had the audacity to adapt a 12-page, mostly illustrated children’s novel to the silver screen.  Guess what?  He succeeded admirably.

Wild Things is a beautifully told vision of childhood.  The fears, anxieties, tribulations and joys told through the eyes of a young boy named Max (portrayed by terrific child actor Max Records) are all brought to vivid, beautiful light in this film.

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